Inspired genius

Inspired genius

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Thu 15 Nov 2007 1:00 AM

‘Some
of Michelangelo’s friends wrote from Florence to tell him to return,
since it was not beyond the realm of possibility that he might be given
the block of spoiled marble in the Works Department, which Piero
Soderini, recently elected Gonfaloniere of the city for life, had many
times talked about giving to Leonardo da Vinci’

 

This sentence in Giorgio Vasari’s classic, The Lives of the Artists, was one of the sparks for writing The Giant,
a play about the carving of the David between 1501 and 1504, and the
rivalry between two very different artists, Leonardo da Vinci and
Michelangelo.

 

Another idea came from Frederick Hartt’s David by the Hand of Michelangelo, in which he suggests that one of the young mountaineer quarrymen from Carrara may have been the model for the statue, for their daily labour produced a physical build that corresponds to David’s.

 

Both
Vasari and Hartt are indulging in historical speculation rather
reporting historical fact, although some of these exist, too. For
example, the starting point is certainly true: Leonardo and
Michelangelo were in the same city at the same time: the beginning of
the sixteenth century. The David was carved between 1501 and
1504. But the plot that began brewing in my head mixed together rumours
and records from the past, along with a good helping of dramatic
licence.

 

Florence
was emerging from a turbulent period. First there was the departure of
the ruling family, the Medicis, and then the repressive regime of
Savonarola, which ended when he was burnt at the stake. Now a free
republic, with Machiavelli as a leading figure, Florence remained a place of extreme contradictions.

 

The city was known across Europe
for its sexual freedom (the German word for ‘sodomite’ was
‘Florentine’), yet it retained its formidable vice squad, the Officers
of the Night. If you were reported to them, you could be in serious
trouble.

 

In
his youth, Leonardo was arrested on a sodomy charge. The case was
dropped, but from then on the writings of this great humanist display a
curious revulsion towards sex.

 

Some
art historians also say that Michelangelo, who was a deeply religious
man, remained a virgin throughout his life, pouring his sexual longings
into his work, portraying the male nude more obsessively than anyone
before or since.

 

As
a gay man, I’ve always been intrigued by the idea that the creation of
art may be a substitute for the creation of children. But what if it
was a substitute for sex itself?

 

When
I was a schoolboy, and planning to go to art rather than drama school,
my favourite artist was Michelangelo, but during my early preparations
for this play, Leonardo quickly became an equally compelling figure for
me.

 

While
Michelangelo created giants-not just the statue of David, not just the
Sistine Chapel, but the dome of St Peter’s itself-Leonardo operated on
a much smaller scale. His notebooks are miniatures, yet contain some of
his greatest achievements, as he tried to design things, such as
aeroplanes, which would eventually transform human life, even though
the engineering of his time was not yet capable of building them. I
love Freud’s description of Leonardo as a man who woke too early in the
dark while everyone else was still asleep.

 

I
submitted an outline of the play to the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)
and received the commissioned to write it. The RSC then joined with
Hampstead Theatre and Thelma Holt to produce it.

 

My research intensified, although still just from books, and these yielded many surprises. I didn’t know that Leonardo sat on the committee that decided where Michelangelo’s David was
to be placed. I didn’t know that a portrait sketch by Michelangelo is
thought to be of Leonardo. According to the history books, they met
only once in a Florence street where they had a silly little argument about Dante.

 

But books are books. You can’t smell Florence’s river in a book, or see the way its midsummer heat turns the terracotta roofs a hazy white.

 

During 2005 and 2006, I travelled there repeatedly with my partner, Greg Doran, director of The Giant,
and each time we were hosted by the Villa La Pietra. There were times
when I felt I was enjoying myself too much. But Greg always knew how to
bring me back to earth. He’d just say: ‘Now all you have to do is write
the play’.

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